Objective information about retirement, financial planning and investments

 

4 Things To Do When The Stock Market Drops

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Today was an ugly day in the stock market. The S&P 500 declined by 2.44% and the Dow dropped 1.45%. Much of this decline was fueled by the huge decline in Facebook’s parent’s shares. Meta Platforms, Inc. (ticker FB) saw its share price decline by a stunning 26.39% in a single day on the heels of its Q4 earnings report. At the end of 2021, Meta shares comprised 1.96% of the Vanguard S&P 500 Index ETF (ticker VOO).

Today’s decline is on top of high levels of market volatility that we’ve seen so far in 2022.

My thoughts on how investors should react to this type of stock market decline haven’t changed since I first wrote this post a number of years ago.

4 Things to do When the Stock Market Drops

Breathe 

Cable news networks like CNBC provide extensive coverage and analysis on days with a steep stock market decline like we saw today. It’s easy to get caught up in all of this.. Don’t let yourself be sucked in and rattled.

Step back, take a deep breath and relax.

Take stock of where you are 

Review your accounts and assess the extent of the damage that has been done. Investors who are well-diversified may be hurt but generally not to the extent of those who are highly allocated to stocks.

Review your asset allocation 

With the tremendous year for stocks in in 2021, many investors are likely still in a good long-term position. If you haven’t done so recently, perhaps it is time to review your asset allocation and make some adjustments. Proper diversification is great way to reduce investment risk. This is a good time to rebalance your portfolio back to your target asset allocation if needed as well.

Go shopping 

Market declines can create buying opportunities. If you have some individual stocks, ETFs or mutual funds on your “wish list” this is the time to start looking at them with an eye towards buying at some point. It is unrealistic to assume you will be able to buy at the very bottom so don’t worry about that.


Before making any investment be sure that it fits your strategy and your financial plan. Also make sure the investment is still a solid long-term holding and that it is not cheap for reasons other than general market conditions.

The Bottom Line 

Steep and sudden stock market declines can be unnerving. Don’t panic and don’t let yourself get caught up in all of the media hype. Stick to your plan, review your holdings and make some adjustments if needed. Nobody knows where the markets are headed but those who make investment decisions driven by fear usually regret it.

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Not sure if your investments are right for your situation? Need help getting on track? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service for detailed guidance and advice about your situation.

NEW SERVICE – Financial Coaching. Check out this new service to see if its right for you. Financial coaching focuses on providing education and mentoring regarding the financial transition to retirement.

FINANCIAL WRITING. Check out my freelance financial writing services including my ghostwriting services for financial advisors.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Check out our resources page for links to some other great sites and some outstanding products that you might find useful.

Annuities: The Wonder Drug for Your Retirement?

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Annuities: The Wonder Drug for Your Retirement?

Annuities are often touted as the “cure” for all that ails your retirement.  Baby Boomers and retirees are the prime target market for the annuity sales types. You’ve undoubtedly heard many of these pitches in person or as advertisements. The pitches frequently pander to the fears that many investors still feel after the last stock market decline. After all, what’s not to like about guaranteed income?

What is an annuity?

I’ll let the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) explain this in a quote from their website:

“An annuity is a contract between you and an insurance company that is designed to meet retirement and other long-range goals, under which you make a lump-sum payment or series of payments. In return, the insurer agrees to make periodic payments to you beginning immediately or at some future date.

Annuities typically offer tax-deferred growth of earnings and may include a death benefit that will pay your beneficiary a specified minimum amount, such as your total purchase payments. While tax is deferred on earnings growth, when withdrawals are taken from the annuity, gains are taxed at ordinary income rates, and not capital gains rates. If you withdraw your money early from an annuity, you may pay substantial surrender charges to the insurance company, as well as tax penalties.

There are generally three types of annuities — fixed, indexed, and variable. In a fixed annuity, the insurance company agrees to pay you no less than a specified rate of interest during the time that your account is growing. The insurance company also agrees that the periodic payments will be a specified amount per dollar in your account. These periodic payments may last for a definite period, such as 20 years, or an indefinite period, such as your lifetime or the lifetime of you and your spouse.

In an indexed annuity, the insurance company credits you with a return that is based on changes in an index, such as the S&P 500 Composite Stock Price Index. Indexed annuity contracts also provide that the contract value will be no less than a specified minimum, regardless of index performance.

In a variable annuity, you can choose to invest your purchase payments from among a range of different investment options, typically mutual funds. The rate of return on your purchase payments, and the amount of the periodic payments you eventually receive, will vary depending on the performance of the investment options you have selected.

Variable annuities are securities regulated by the SEC. An indexed annuity may or may not be a security; however, most indexed annuities are not registered with the SEC. Fixed annuities are not securities and are not regulated by the SEC. You can learn more about variable annuities by reading our publication, Variable Annuities: What You Should Know.”

What’s good about annuities?

In an uncertain world, an annuity can offer a degree of certainty to retirees in terms of receiving a fixed stream of payments over their lifetime or some other specified period of time. Once you annuitize there’s no guesswork about how much you will be receiving, assuming that the insurance company behind the product stays healthy.

Watch out for high and/or hidden fees 

The biggest beef about annuities are the fees, which are often hidden or least difficult to find. Many annuity products carry fees that are pretty darn high, others are much more reasonable. In general, the lack of transparency regarding the fees associated with many annuity contracts is appalling.

There are typically several layers of fees in an annuity:

Fees connected with the underlying investments In a variable annuity there are fees connected with the underlying sub-account (accounts that resemble mutual funds) similar to the expense ratio of a mutual fund. In a fixed annuity the underlying fees are typically the difference between the net interest rate you will receive vs. the gross interest rate earned.  In the case of an indexed annuity product the fees are just plain murky.

Mortality and expense charges are fees charged by the insurance company to cover their costs for guaranteeing a stream of income to you. While I get this and understand it, the wide variance in these and other fees across the universe of annuity contracts and the insurance companies that provide them makes me shake my head.

Surrender charges are fees that are designed to keep you from withdrawing your funds for a period of time.  From my point of view these charges are heinous whether in an annuity, a mutual fund, or anyplace else. If you are considering an annuity and the product has a surrender charge, avoid it. I’m not advocating withdrawing money early from an annuity, but surrender charges also restrict you from exchanging a high cost annuity into one with a lower fee structure. Essentially these fees serve to ensure that the agent or rep who sold you the high fee annuity (and the insurance company) continue to benefit by placing handcuffs on you in terms of sticking with the policy.

Who’s really guaranteeing your annuity? 

When you purchase an annuity, your stream of payments is guaranteed by the “full faith and credit” of the underlying insurance company.  This differs from a pension that is annuitized and backed by the PBGC, a governmental entity, up to certain limits.

Outside of the most notable failure, Executive Life in the early 1990s, there have not been a high number of insurance company failures. In the case of Executive Life, thousands of annuity recipients were impacted in the form of greatly reduced annuity payments which in many cases permanently impacted the quality of their retirement.

Insurance companies are regulated at the state level; state insurance departments are generally the backstop in the event of an insurance company failure. In most cases you will receive some portion of the payment amount that you expected, but there is often a delay in receiving these payments.

The point is not to scare anyone from buying an annuity but rather to remind you to perform your own due diligence on the underlying insurance company.

Should you buy an annuity? 

Annuities are not a bad product as long as you understand what they can and cannot do for you. Like anything else you need to shop for the right annuity. For example, an insurance agent or registered rep is not going to show you a product from a low cost provider who offers a product with ultra-low fees and no surrender charges because they receive no commissions.

An annuity can offer diversification in your retirement income stream. Perhaps you have investments in taxable and tax-deferred accounts from which you will withdraw money to fund your retirement. Adding Social Security to the mix provides a government-funded stream of payments. A commercial annuity can also be of value as part of your retirement income stream, again as long as you shop for the appropriate product.

Annuities are generally sold rather than bought by Baby Boomers and others. Be a smart consumer and understand what you are buying, why a particular annuity product (and the insurance company) are right for you, and the benefits that you expect to receive from the annuity. Properly used, an annuity can be a valuable component of your retirement planning efforts. Be sure to read ALL of the fine print and understand ALL of the expenses, terms, conditions and restrictions before writing a check.

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Not sure if your investments are right for your situation? Need help getting on track? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service for detailed guidance and advice about your situation.

NEW SERVICE – Financial Coaching. Check out this new service to see if it’s right for you. Financial coaching focuses on providing education and mentoring on the financial transition to retirement.

FINANCIAL WRITING. Check out my freelance financial writing services including my ghostwriting services for financial advisors.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Check out our resources page for links to some other great sites and some outstanding products that you might find useful.

Photo credit:  Flickr

Financial Fraud – Tips to Protect Yourself

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While Bernie Madoff passed away in April of 2021, financial fraud is still very much an issue. Along with the “old fashioned” types of fraud, we now have cybercrime to worry about. Financial fraud is all over the news. Whether high-profile Ponzi Scheme cases via the likes of Madoff, Allen Stanford or many smaller cases, investors are being defrauded out of their hard-earned money at an alarming rate.

Financial Fraud – Tips to Protect Yourself

I’d like to tell you that the problem emanates only from financial advisors who sell product, but sadly two former presidents of NAPFA, the country’s largest organization of fee-only advisors, were been implicated in fraud cases in recent years.

Given the increasing skill and imagination of fraudsters there is no fool-proof way to protect you and your family from financial fraud.  None the less here are some tips for you to reduce the risk:

Use a third-party custodian

If a financial advisor suggests that you don’t need to house your investments with a third-party custodian such as Schwab, Fidelity, your bank, Merrill Lynch, etc. I suggest that you run (don’t walk) away from any relationship with this person.

This was one of the key tactics that Madoff used to perpetrate his fraud for so many years. He even sent his own client statements. While a third-party custodian is not fool-proof, you should insist upon this arrangement. Besides receiving an independently prepared statement, you can generally set-up online access.

Review your account statements

Read and review your account statements on a regular basis. Besides being a good practice, this is a must to catch both honest mistakes and potentially fraudulent transactions. Several years ago, an advisor allegedly took client funds from accounts at Schwab by forging their signatures. I’m sure that he was counting on the fact that many clients never review their account statements or check their accounts online.

Affinity Fraud

Don’t assume that you can trust an advisor just because he or she attends your church, or you are in the same Rotary club. Affinity fraud is far too common. Many of Madoff’s victims were members of the Jewish community up and down the East Coast. I’m not suggesting that you disqualify an advisor because they are a member of your church, but they should be put through the same level of scrutiny as any other advisor that you would consider.

Beware the rush job

If an advisor is insistent that you invest NOW, be very leery. There is no investment that is that urgent. Investments should be made after careful planning to ensure that they are part of a strategy that is right for you. Don’t let yourself be pressured into doing anything with your money. High pressure often equals a scam.

Only invest in what you understand

If you don’t understand an investment vehicle proposed by a financial advisor don’t allow your money to be invested there. Demand he or she explain the investment to you until you do understand it so that you can make a good decision.

Elder Fraud

If you have elderly parents or relatives talk to them about investment scams as many are aimed at seniors. While this can be a touchy subject, it is an important one. Sadly, a high percentage of the financial fraud aimed at seniors is perpetrated by family members. Your help here may include protecting these people from other members of your own family.

Stay engaged

Overall make sure that if you work with a financial advisor that you stay engaged in the process of managing your money. While it is great to find a trusted advisor, make sure you continue to ask questions about the advice they are providing and why they feel a particular investment or course of action is right for your situation.

The Bottom Line

Financial and investment fraud is rampant. The steps above can help but overall be diligent about your finances and the people you are trusting to provide you advice. Be especially leery of unsolicited calls urging you to invest in the next hot thing. If something sounds too good to be true it probably is.

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Want an independent review of your investment portfolio? Need help getting on track? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service for more detailed advice about your situation.

NEW SERVICE – Financial Coaching. Check out this new service to see if its right for you. Financial coaching focuses on providing education and mentoring on the financial transition to retirement.

FINANCIAL WRITING. Check out my freelance financial writing services including my ghostwriting services for financial advisors.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Check out our resources page for links to some other great sites and some outstanding products that you might find useful.

Photo credit:  Wikipedia

4 Reasons to Accept Your Company’s Buyout Offer

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4 Reasons to Accept Your Company’s Buyout Offer

Companies will use buyout packages for groups of employees from time-to-time to provide those employees an incentive to leave the company. The company may have a variety of reasons behind their desire to reduce their workforce, such as reducing expenses or realigning business units.

Many companies offer employees a buyout package to encourage them to leave the company. This is generally done to encourage voluntary departures when the organization is looking to reduce headcount. These offers can cover employers across all levels of experience, but are often structured as early retirement packages geared to older workers. Over the years I’ve been asked by Baby Boomer clients and friends whether they should accept this offer from their company. Almost without exception I’ve encouraged these folks to take the money and run. Here are 4 reasons to accept your company’s buyout offer.

There’s a target on your back 

If your company has identified you as somebody who might be a good candidate for a buyout offer this generally means you are on their list. In my experience I’ve invariably seen folks who have turned down the first offer finding themselves out of a job within a year or so.

The first offer is likely as good as it’s going to get 

A number of years ago a friend called me to discuss a buyout offer he had received from his employer, Motorola. Given his age and the favorable terms of the buyout offer I strongly encourage him to take the package. He ended up not taking the offer and stayed with the company for a bit over a year afterwards. Sadly, he was let go and the financial terms of his separation were not nearly as favorable as they would have been had he taken the initial buyout.

Sweetened terms and incentives 

Every situation is different, but I’ve seen buyout offers that included such incentives as extended medical coverage, years of service added to a pension calculation, and additional severance pay over and above what an employee would have been entitled to based upon their years of service. Additional incentives might include training and job search help.  In many cases these buyouts can be incentives for older workers to take early retirement and the incentives are geared to areas like the ability to receive early pension payments.

This could be a great opportunity

While most people don’t like the idea of losing their job, a generous buyout might be a great opportunity for you. If you will continue to work and you are able to find a new job quickly the buyout could serve as a nice financial bonus for you. This situation might also serve as an opportunity to start your own business. If you were looking to retire in the near future this could be just the opportunity you were looking for.  I’ve had more than one client over the years joyously accept their company’s early retirement incentive.

In analyzing whether to take the buyout you should at a minimum consider the following:

  • Your current financial situation, what impact will this have on my overall financial plan and my goals such as retirement and sending my kids to college?
  • What you might do next:  Retirement, self-employment, look for another job
  • If you will stay in the workforce what are your employment prospects?
  • Health insurance options.
  • How good are the incentives being offered?  Can you or should you try to negotiate a better package?

Corporate buyouts and early retirement packages are clearly here to stay.  If you are a corporate employee, especially one in the Baby Boomer or the Gen X age range, you should give some thought to what you would do if this situation were to present itself.

Were you offered a buyout or early retirement package? Do you need some help evaluating it? Do you need an independent opinion on your investments and where you stand in terms of retirement? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service. 

NEW SERVICE – Financial Coaching. Check out this new service to see if its right for you. Financial coaching focuses on providing education and mentoring on the financial transition to retirement.

FINANCIAL WRITING. Check out my freelance financial writing services including my ghostwriting services for financial advisors.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Check out our resources page for links to some other great sites and some outstanding products that you might find useful.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

401(k) Fee Disclosure and the American Funds

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With the release and subsequent repeal of the Department of Labor’s fiduciary rules for financial advisors dealing with client retirement accounts, much of the focus in recent years has been on the impact on advisors who provide advice to clients for their IRA accounts. Long before these rules were unveiled and then repealed, financial advisors serving 401(k) plan sponsors have had a fiduciary responsibility to act in the best interests of the plan’s participants under the DOL’s ERISA rules.

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Starting in 2012, retirement plan sponsors have been required to disclose the costs associated with the investment options offered in 401(k) plans annually.

As an illustration, here’s how the various share classes offered by the American Funds for retirement plans stack up under the portion of the required disclosures that deal with the costs and performance of the plan’s investment options.

American Funds EuroPacific Growth

The one American Funds option that I’ve used most over the years in 401(k) plans is the EuroPacific Growth fund.  This fund is a core large cap foreign stock fund.  It generally has some emerging markets holdings, but most of the fund is comprised of foreign equities from developed countries. The R6 share class is the least expensive of the retirement plan share classes. Let’s look at how the various share classes stack up in the disclosure format:

Share Class Ticker Expense Ratio Expenses per $1,000 invested Trailing 1-year return Trailing 3-year return Trailing 5-year return
R1 RERAX 1.58% $15.80 23.86% 9.51% 11.22%
R2 RERBX 1.56% $15.60 23.89% 9.52% 11.24%
R3 RERCX 1.12% $11.20 24.43% 10.02% 11.74%
R4 REREX 0.81% $8.10 24.81% 10.35% 12.08%
R5 RERFX 0.51% $5.10 25.19% 10.69% 12.42%
R6 RERGX 0.46% $4.60 25.27% 10.74% 12.47%

3-and 5-year returns are annualized.  Source:  Morningstar   Data as of 12/31/2020

While the chart above pertains only to the EuroPacific Growth fund, looking at the six retirement plan share classes for any of the American Funds products would offer similar relative results.   

The underlying portfolios and the management team are identical for each share class. The difference lies in the expense ratio of each share class.  This is driven by the 12b-1 fees associated with the different share classes. This fee is part of the expense ratio and is generally used all or in part to compensate the advisor on the plan.  In this case these advisors would generally be registered reps, brokers, and insurance agents. The 12b-1 fee can also revert to the plan to lower expenses. The 12b-1 fees by share class are:

R1                   1.00%

R2                   0.75%

R3                   0.50%

R4                   0.25%

R5 and R6 have no 12b-1 fees.

Growth of $10,000 invested

The real impact of expense differences can be seen by comparing the growth of $10,000 invested by a hypothetical investor on December 31, 2010 and held through December 31, 2020.

  • The $10,000 invested in the R1 shares would have grown to a value of $19,580.32.
  • The $10,000 invested in the R6 shares would have grown to a value of $21,880.57.

This is a difference of $2,300.25 or 11.7%. The portfolios of the two share classes of the fund are identical, the difference in performance is due to the difference in expenses for the two share classes. If you think of these as two retirement plan participants, one whose plan uses the R1 share class and the other whose plan uses the R6 share class, the first investor would have 11.7% less after ten years due to their plan sponsor’s choice regarding which fund share class to offer.

This analysis assumes a one-time investment of $10,000 and the reinvestment of all distributions. Morningstar’s Advisor Workstation was used to perform this analysis.

Share classes matter

The R1 and R2 shares have traditionally been used in plans where the 12b-1 fees are used to compensate a financial salesperson. This is fine as long as that salesperson is providing a real service for their compensation and is not just being paid to place the business.

If you are a plan participant and you notice that your plan has one or more American Funds choices in the R1 or R2 share classes, in my opinion you probably have a lousy plan due to the extremely high expenses charged by these share classes. It is incumbent upon you to ask your employer if the plan can move to lower cost shares or even a different provider. The R3 shares are a bit of an improvement but still quite pricey for a retirement plan in my opinion.

To be clear, I’m generally a fan of the American Funds. Overall however, their funds tend to offer a large number of share classes between their retirement, non-retirement and 529 plan shares. While the overall portfolios are generally the same, it’s critical for investors and retirement plan sponsors to understand the differing expense structures and the impact they have on potential returns.

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Not sure if your investments are right for your situation? Need help getting on track? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service for detailed guidance and advice about your situation.

NEW SERVICE – Financial Coaching. Check out this new service to see if it’s right for you. Financial coaching focuses on providing education and mentoring on the financial transition to retirement.

FINANCIAL WRITING. Check out my freelance financial writing services including my ghostwriting services for financial advisors.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Check out our resources page for links to some other great sites and some outstanding products that you might find useful.

Photo credit:  Flickr

Review Your 401(k) Account

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For many of us, our 401(k) plan is our main retirement savings vehicle. The days of a defined benefit pension plan are a thing of the past for most workers and we are responsible for the amount we save for retirement and how we invest that money.

Managed properly, your 401(k) plan can play a significant role in providing a solid retirement nest egg. Like any investment account, you need to ensure that your investments are properly allocated in line with your goals, time horizon and tolerance for risk.

Photo by Aidan Bartos on Unsplash

You should thoroughly review your 401(k) plan at least annually. Some items to consider while doing this review include:

Have your goals or objectives changed?

Take time to review your retirement goals and objectives. Calculate how much you’ll need at retirement as well as how much you need to save annually to meet that goal. Review the investments offered by the plan and be sure that your asset allocation and the investments selected dovetail with your retirement goals and fit with your overall investment strategy including assets held outside of the plan.

Are you contributing as much as you can to the plan?

Look for ways to increase your contribution rate. One strategy is to allocate any salary increases to your 401(k) plan immediately, before you get used to the money and find ways to spend it. At a minimum, make sure you are contributing enough to take full advantage of any matching contributions made by your employer. For 2020 the maximum contribution to a 401(k) plan is $19,500 plus an additional $6,500 catch-up contribution for individuals who are age 50 and older at any point during the year. These limits are unchanged for 2021.

Are the assets in your 401(k) plan properly allocated?

Some of the more common mistakes made when investing 401(k) assets include allocating too much to conservative investments, not diversifying among several investment vehicles, and investing too much in an employer’s stock. Saving for retirement typically encompasses a long time frame, so make investment choices that reflect your time horizon and risk tolerance. Many plans offer Target Date Funds or other pre-allocated choices. One of these may be a good choice for you, however, you need to ensure that you understand how these funds work, the level of risk inherent in the investment approach and the expenses.

Review your asset allocation as part of your overall asset allocation

Often 401(k) plan participants do not take other investments outside of their 401(k) plan, such as IRAs, a spouse’s 401(k) plan, or holdings in taxable accounts into consideration when allocating their 401(k) account.

Your 401(k) investments should be allocated as part of your overall financial plan. Failing to take these other investment assets into account may result in an overall asset allocation that is not in line with your financial goals.

Review the performance of individual investments, comparing the performance to appropriate benchmarks. You shouldn’t just select your investments once and then ignore them. Review your allocation at least annually to make sure it is correct. If not, adjust your holdings to get your allocation back in line. Selling investments within your 401(k) plan does not generate tax liabilities, so you can make these changes without any tax ramifications.

Do your investments need to be rebalanced?

Use this review to determine if your account needs to be rebalanced back to your desired allocation. Many plans offer a feature that allows for periodic automatic rebalancing back to your target allocation. You might consider setting the auto rebalance feature to trigger every six or twelve months.

Are you satisfied with the features of your 401(k) plan?

If there are aspects of your plan you’re not happy with, such as too few or poor investment choices, take this opportunity to let your employer know. Obviously do this in a constructive and tactful fashion. Given the recent volume of successful 401(k) lawsuits employers are more conscious of their fiduciary duties and yours may be receptive to your suggestions.

The Bottom Line

Your 401(k) plan is a significant employee benefit and is likely your major retirement savings vehicle. It is important that you monitor your account and be proactive in managing it as part of your overall financial and retirement planning efforts.

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Not sure if your investments are right for your situation? Need help getting on track? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service for detailed guidance and advice about your situation.

NEW SERVICE – Financial Coaching. Check out this new service to see if it’s right for you. Financial coaching focuses on providing education and mentoring in two areas: the financial transition to retirement or small business financial coaching.

FINANCIAL WRITING. Check out my freelance financial writing services including my ghostwriting services for financial advisors.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Check out our resources page for links to some other great sites and some outstanding products that you might find useful.

4 Benefits of Portfolio Rebalancing

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The past couple of years have been a roller coaster ride in the stock market. The S&P 500 lost 4.38% in 2018 mostly from a poor fourth quarter performance. The market recovered nicely in 2019 with the index posting a 31.49% total return for the year. This trend seemed to be continuing into 2020, with the index hitting a record high in late February.

Then the markets felt the impact of COVID-19. By late March the index had plummeted over 33% from its all-time high reached only a month prior. Since then, however, the stock market has recovered nicely with the S&P 500 closing at an all-time high yesterday.

The recovery in the markets has been an uneven one. Growth stocks have led the way, while value has largely lagged. Apple’s shares are up over 70% year-to-date, Amazon is up almost 78% and Microsoft is up over 36%.

With all of these gyrations among various asset classes over the past couple of years, you may be taking on more or less risk than is appropriate for your situation. If you haven’t done so recently, this is a good time to consider rebalancing your investments. Here are four benefits of portfolio rebalancing.

4 Benefits of Portfolio Rebalancing

Balancing risk and reward

Asset allocation is about balancing risk and reward. Invariably some asset classes will perform better than others. This can cause your portfolio to be skewed towards an allocation that takes too much risk or too little risk based on your financial objectives.

During robust periods in the stock market equities will outperform asset classes such as fixed income. Perhaps your target allocation was 65% stocks and 35% bonds and cash. A stock market rally might leave your portfolio at 75% stocks and 25% fixed income and cash. This is great if the market continues to rise but you would likely see a more pronounced decline in your portfolio should the market experience a sharp correction.

Portfolio rebalancing enforces a level of discipline

Rebalancing imposes a level of discipline in terms of selling a portion of your winners and putting that money back into asset classes that have underperformed.

This may seem counterintuitive but market leadership rotates over time. During the first decade of this century emerging markets equities were often among the top performing asset classes. Fast forward to today and their performance has been much more muted.

Rebalancing can help save investors from their own worst instincts. It is often tempting to let top performing holdings and asset classes run when the markets seem to keep going up. Investors heavy in large caps, especially those with heavy tech holdings, found out the risk of this approach when the Dot Com bubble burst in early 2000.

Ideally investors should have a written investment policy that outlines their target asset allocation with upper and lower percentage ranges. Violating these ranges should trigger a review for potential portfolio rebalancing.

A good reason to review your portfolio

When considering portfolio rebalancing investors should also incorporate a full review of their portfolio that includes a review of their individual holdings and the continued validity of their investment strategy. Some questions you should ask yourself:

  • Have individual stock holdings hit my growth target for that stock?
  • How do my mutual funds and ETFs stack up compared to their peers?
    • Relative performance?
    • Expense ratios?
    • Style consistency?
  • Have my mutual funds or ETFs experienced significant inflows or outflows of dollars?
  • Have there been any recent changes in the key personnel managing the fund?

These are some of the factors that financial advisors consider as they review client portfolios.

This type of review should be done at least annually and I generally suggest that investors review their allocation no more often than quarterly.

Helps you stay on track with your financial plan 

Investing success is not a goal unto itself but rather a tool to help ensure that you meet your financial goals and objectives. Regular readers of The Chicago Financial Planner know that I am a big proponent of having a financial plan in place.

A properly constructed financial plan will contain a target asset allocation and an investment strategy tied to your goals, your timeframe for the money and your risk tolerance. Periodic portfolio rebalancing is vital to maintaining an appropriate asset allocation that is in line with your financial plan.

The Bottom Line 

Regular portfolio rebalancing helps reduce downside investment risk and ensures that your investments are allocated in line with your financial plan. It also can help investors impose an important level of discipline on themselves.

How has the volatility in the stock market impacted your investments and your financial plan? Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Not sure if your investments are right for your situation? Need help getting on track? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service for detailed guidance and advice about your situation.

NEW SERVICE – Financial Coaching. Check out this new service to see if its right for you. Financial coaching focuses on providing education and mentoring for the financial transition to retirement.

FINANCIAL WRITING. Check out my freelance financial writing services including my ghostwriting services for financial advisors.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Check out our resources page for links to some other great sites and some outstanding products that you might find useful.

7 Tips to Become a 401(k) Millionaire

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According to Fidelity in an update released in February of this year, the average balance of 401(k) plan participants stood at $112,300, up 7 percent from the balance at the end of the prior quarter. This data is from plans using the Fidelity platform. This came on the heels of significant gains in the stock market in 2019. It will be interesting to see how these numbers change in the wake of the market volatility from the fallout of COVID-19.

Fidelity indicates that about 441,000 401(k) participants and IRA account holders had a balance of $1 million or more, What is their secret? Here are 7 tips to become a 401(k) millionaire or to at least maximize the value of your 401(k) account.

Be consistent and persistent 

Investing in your 401(k) plan is more of a marathon than a sprint. Maintain and increase your salary deferrals in good markets and bad.

Contribute enough 

In an ideal world every 401(k) investor would max out their annual salary deferrals to their plan which are currently $19,500 and $26,000 for those who are 50 or over.

If you are just turning 50 this year or if you are older be sure to take advantage of the $6,500 catch-up contribution that is available to you. Even if your plan limits the amount that you can contribute because of testing or other issues, this catch-up amount is not impacted. It is also not automatic so be sure to let your plan administrator know that you want to contribute at that level. 

According to a Fidelity study several years ago, the average contribution rate for those with a $1 million balance was 16 percent of salary. The 16 percent contribution rate translated to a bit over $21,000 for the millionaire group.

As I’ve said in past 401(k) posts on this site, it is important to contribute as much as you can. If you can only afford to defer 3 percent this year, that’s a start. Next year try to hit 4 percent or more. As a general rule it is a good goal to contribute at least enough to earn the full match if your employer offers one.

Take appropriate risks 

As with any sort of investment account be sure that you are investing in accordance with your financial plan, your age and your risk tolerance. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen lists of plan participants and see participants in their 20s with all or a large percentage of their account in the plan’s money market or stable value option.

Your account can’t grow if you don’t take some risk.  

Don’t assume Target Date Funds are the answer 

Target Date Funds are big business for the mutual fund companies offering them. They also represent a “safe harbor” from liability for your employer. I’m not saying they are a bad option but I’m also not saying they are the best option for you. Everyone’s situation is different, be sure you make the best investing decisions for your situation.

I like TDFs for younger investors say those in their 20s who may not have other investments outside of the plan. The TDF offers an instant diversified portfolio for them.

Once you’ve been working for a while you should have some outside investments. By the time you are in your 30s or 40s you should consider a portfolio more tailored to your situation.

Additionally Target Date Funds all have a glide path into retirement. They are all a bit different: you need to understand if the glide path offered by the TDF family in your plan is right for you. 

Invest during a long bull market 

This is a bit sarcastic but the bull market for stocks that started in March of 2009 and recently ended with the market decline in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, is in part why we’ve seen a surge in 401(k) millionaires and in 401(k) balances in general. The equity allocations of 401(k) portfolios have driven the values higher.

The flip side are those who swore off stocks at the depths of the 2008-2009 market downturn and have missed one of the better opportunities in history to increase their 401(k) balance and their overall retirement nest egg.

Don’t fumble the ball before crossing the goal line 

We’ve all seen those “hotdogs” running for a sure touchdown only to spike the ball in celebration before crossing the goal line.

The 401(k) equivalent of this is to just let your account run in a bull market like this one and not rebalance it back to your target allocation. If your target is 60 percent in stocks and it’s grown to 80 percent in equities due to the run up of the past few years you might well be a 401(k) millionaire.

It is just as likely that you may become a former 401(k) millionaire if you don’t rebalance. The stock market has a funny way of punishing investors who are too aggressive or who don’t manage their investments.

Pay attention to those old 401(k) accounts 

Whether becoming a 401(k) millionaire in your current 401(k) account or combined across several accounts, the points mentioned above still apply. In addition it is important to be proactive with your 401(k) account when you leave a job. Whether you roll the account over to an IRA, leave it in the old plan or roll it to a new employer’s plan, make a decision. Leaving an old 401(k) account unattended is wasting this money and can hinder your retirement savings efforts.

The Bottom Line 

Whether you actually amass $1 million in your 401(k) or not, the goal is to maximize the amount accumulated there for retirement. The steps outlined above can help you to do this. Are you ready to start down the path of becoming a 401(k) millionaire?

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Not sure if your investments are right for your situation? Need help getting on track? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service for detailed guidance and advice about your situation.

NEW SERVICE – Financial Coaching. Check out this new service to see if it’s right for you. Financial coaching focuses on providing education and mentoring on the financial transition to retirement.

FINANCIAL WRITING. Check out my freelance financial writing services including my ghostwriting services for financial advisors.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Check out our resources page for links to some other great sites and some outstanding products that you might find useful.

8 Portfolio Rebalancing Tips

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In light of the recent stock market volatility, it’s important to review your asset allocation and consider rebalancing your portfolio if needed. This post looks at some ways to implement a portfolio rebalancing strategy. Here are 8 portfolio rebalancing tips that you can use to help in this process.

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Set a target asset allocation 

Your asset allocation should be an outgrowth of a target asset allocation from your financial plan and/or a written investment policy. This is the target asset allocation that should be used when rebalancing your portfolio. 

Establish a time frame to rebalance 

Ideally you are reviewing your portfolio and your investments on a regular basis. As part of this process you should incorporate a review of your asset allocation at a set interval. This might be semi-annually for example. I generally suggest no more frequently than quarterly. An exception would be after a precipitous move up or down in the markets.

Take a total portfolio view 

When rebalancing your portfolio take a total portfolio view. This includes taxable accounts as well as retirement accounts like an IRA or your 401(k). This approach allows you to be strategic and tax-efficient when rebalancing and ensures that you are not taking too little or too much risk on an overall basis.

Incorporate new money 

If you have new money to invest take a look at your asset allocation first and use these funds to shore up portions of your asset allocation that may be below their target allocation. A twist on this is to direct new 401(k) contributions to one or two funds in order to get your overall asset allocation back in balance. In this case you will need to take any use of your plan’s auto rebalancing feature into account as well. 

Use auto pilot 

For those with an employer sponsored retirement plan such as a 401(k), 403(b) or similar defined contribution plan many plans offer an auto-rebalancing feature. This allows you to select a time interval at which your account will be rebalanced back to the allocation that you select.

This serves two purposes. First it saves you from having to remember to do it. Second it takes the emotion and potential hesitation out of the decision to pare back on your winners and redistribute these funds to other holdings in your account.

I generally suggest using a six-month time frame and no more frequently than quarterly and no less than annually. Remember you can opt out or change the interval at any time you wish and you can rebalance your account between the set intervals if needed.

Make charitable contributions with appreciated assets 

If you are charitably inclined consider gifting shares of appreciated holdings in taxable accounts such as individual stocks, mutual funds and ETFs to charity as part of the rebalancing process. This allows you to forgo paying taxes on the capital gains and may provide a charitable tax deduction on the market value of the securities donated.

Most major custodians can help facilitate this and many charities are set-up to accept donations on this type. Make sure that you have held the security for at least a year and a day in order to get the maximum benefit if you able to itemize deductions. This is often associated with year-end planning but this is something that you can do at any point during the year.

Incorporate tax-loss harvesting

This is another tactic that is often associated with year-end planning but one that can be implemented throughout the year. Tax-loss harvesting involves selling holdings with an unrealized loss in order to realize that loss for tax purposes.

You might periodically look at holdings with an unrealized loss and sell some of them off as part of the rebalancing process. Note I only suggest taking a tax loss if makes sense from an investment standpoint, it is not a good idea to “let the tax tail wag the investment dog.”

Be sure that you are aware of and abide by the wash sale rules that pertain to realizing and deducting tax losses.

Don’t think you are smarter than the market 

It’s tough to sell winners and then invest that money back into portions of your portfolio that haven’t done as well. However, portfolio rebalancing is part of a disciplined investment process.  It can be tempting to let your winners run, but too much of this can skew your allocation too far in the direction of stocks and increase your downside risk.

If you think you can outsmart the market, trust me you can’t. How devastating can the impact of being wrong be? Just ask those who bought into the mantra “…it’s different this time…” before the Dot Com bubble burst or just before the stock market debacle of the last recession.

The Bottom Line 

Portfolio rebalancing is a key strategy to control the risk of your investment portfolio. It is important that you review your portfolio for potential rebalancing opportunities at set intervals and that you have the discipline to follow through and execute if needed. These 8 portfolio rebalancing tips can help.

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Not sure if your investments are right for your situation? Need help getting on track? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service for detailed guidance and advice about your situation.

NEW SERVICE – Financial Coaching. Check out this new service to see if it’s right for you. Financial coaching focuses on providing education and mentoring on the financial transition to retirement.

FINANCIAL WRITING. Check out my freelance financial writing services including my ghostwriting services for financial advisors.

Please contact me with any thoughts or suggestions about anything you’ve read here at The Chicago Financial Planner. Don’t miss any future posts, please subscribe via email. Check out our resources page for links to some other great sites and some outstanding products that you might find useful.